Sunday, June 06, 2004

Barton Fink

"I could tell you some stories," Charlie Meadows tells Barton Fink. I pay attention to repetition. I think I caught that repeated line the first time I watched the movie, but the first time I saw it, I didn't like Barton Fink at all because the plot centered on writer's block, which made me so anxious I could only wring my hands and sweat as I watched the movie. I think I actually wanted Meadows to kill Fink that first time I watched it. This time I really enjoyed it and thought it was funny. The big joke--the one that I think the reviewers (many of whom I read this morning) missed--is that Barton Fink is tortured with despair over not being able to write a story of a common man, when a supposedly common man keeps presenting himself in his room at night and offering to tell him stories. Every time, Fink interrupts him and rants on and on about not having a story. That's funny.

I guess one person got close. New York Times reviewer, Vincent Canby called it "a satire on the life of the mind." One might say that Fink is so caught up in the life of the mind that he is trapped and tortured and that that mind is personified in a way by the hell of the Hotel Earle, with its oozing and eventually flaming walls. Another clue of the "heady" torture is the repetition of the word "head." Reviewer Jeff Vorndam ( says "people are said to have a good head on their shoulders, people are admonished not to lose their heads." Meadows keeps having to go to New York because things are "all balled up" in the "head office." We only find out later that John Goodman's character, Charlie Meadows isn't a good natured insurance salesman at all but instead is a murderer who chops the heads off his victims. This life of the mind business is tough going, evidently.

Another funny part of this film is in the earnestness of its characters. It's interesting to me that they are extremes--almost types, but quirky enough not to be. For example, W.P. Mayhew is another screenwriter Fink meets. Mayhew is obviously patterned after William Faulkner, yet somehow he is wonderfully his own person from the moment we meet him, or really just his legs, poised just so against a handkerchief as he vomits in the men's room. Another hilarious character is the movie studio executive, Jack Lipnick, who speaks in delightful Hollywood-esque non sequiturs and in the best scene of all, when he has summoned Barton Fink to, once and for all, tell him the plot summary of the film he is writing, ends up kissing his boots, thanking him for having the artistic integrity to say he doesn't feel comfortable revealing the plot until he finishes the script (which is a lie anyway). It's just great writing on behalf of the Coen brothers, that somehow we recognize these characters as types, but rather than groaning and rolling our eyes, we find ourselves rubbing our hands together delighted to see the quirky way they display their type-tendencies.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time reading the reviews of Barton Fink this morning because I couldn't answer for myself the question that came from the clear references to hell. By the end of the film, when the hallways are on fire (and no alarm is sounded) and John Goodman keeps saying how hot he is, looking more and more demonic, one would have to be asleep to miss the point about the hotel being its own miniature hell. I understood the reference inasmuch as the Coen brothers seemed to be saying that the life of the mind, the life of the writer can be like living in hell sometimes. But somehow the comic tone, the message of the writer not taking himself too seriously made me think I hadn't understood some deeper message.

Despite some embarrassing misspellings and writing problems, the review by Jeff Vorndam was very insightful. He sees Barton Fink as addressing several themes, including the ones I've mentioned, but he also mentions a whole political and ideological message that I missed. To begin with, he noted the names of the police officers, Deutsch and Mastrionotti, as emblematic for German and Italian fascist political beliefs of the time (to contrast with Fink's liberal views)--in fact, they even harass Fink for being Jewish; Vorndam also points out that we find out later from these policemen that Charlie Meadows's real name is Karl Mundt, and when Mundt executes the police officers shouts "Heil Hitler." He says that this information certainly could have led Roger Ebert to conclude about the film that:

The Coens mean this aspect of the film, I think, to be read as an emblem of the rise of Nazism. They paint Fink as an ineffectual and impotent left-wing intellectual, who sells out while telling himself he is doing the right thing, who thinks he understands the "common man" but does not understand that, for many common men, fascism had a seductive appeal. Fink tries to write a wrestling picture and sleeps with the great writer's mistress, while the Holocaust approaches and the nice guy in the next room turns out to be a monster.

So, the idea of Goodman's character being the devil comes to a different conclusion in this view of the film. Vorndam ultimately dismisses this view as the answer to the film, but it is an interesting one to consider and there may be an element of truth about it. I agree that the Coen brothers do seem to be making fun of writers who take themselves too seriously (particularly with their ideology) and that is an element of the humor in the film.

This is a good one. There's so much to consider about Barton Fink, really. I didn't even get to the cinematography, which is really important as well, making the hotel come alive. Another element that seems really important here is intertextuality. On this viewing, for example, I found myself thinking that it would be interesting to consider Barton Fink and The Shining together, just to look at the way the building comes alive in both films and the way the cinematography becomes its own character in both films as well as in how the demonic element is managed. Vorndam also notes tributes to two of Polanski's films in Barton Fink. I also thought this would be interesting to discuss in the context of Adaptation to discuss the way each author and filmmaker deals with the issue of writer's block. As it turns out, the filmmakers in both cases actually did have writer's block and wrote it into the script (Kaufmann was blocked about Adaptation and the Coen brothers about Miller's Crossing). It would be interesting to talk about intertextuality in that regard. This is a great movie.

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